Traditional wisdom says that the public-school system should at least resemble the metropolitan area that it serves. In many places, this is not the case. There are a variety of reasons for this. The most well documented of these is the phenomenon known as “white flight” which refers to the tendency of white affluent or middle-class families to move to the suburbs. But there is another, lesser-known reason for the disparity too. Private schools.

Students need not flee a geographic area to escape a school district. If they have the money, they can simply pay a premium to attend a different school. It is mostly white families that can afford to pay this premium thus white students are often overrepresented in private schools and the leftover black and brown students are overrepresented in the public-school districts relative to their respective numbers according to the demographic data analyzed by Governing.

There are other factors too such as homeschooling which also pulls a disproportionately high number of white students out of the traditional public-school system, or charter schools which pulls more on the black students. However private schools would appear to be the biggest pull nationwide.

So, what are the implications of this?

The first is school funding. Money tends to follow more affluent students around so when a large segment of them decides to attend private schools that could cause issues for the remaining public-school students. Unlike moving to a suburban school, attending a private school doesn’t usually shift your tax dollars away from the public school system under a traditional model. However, if a large section of the community doesn’t send their kids to the public schools, they have little incentive to make sure those schools are well funded. For example, due to inflation and general rising costs schools are constantly increasing their financial ask. If you were a parent that already paid thousands of dollars to send your child to a private school would you feel compelled to vote for that tax increase for the public school district? For many, the answer is no.

Although school choice is often attacked for increasing segregation, school voucher programs have been found to mitigate the effects of private school flight in some areas. The public schools in Milwaukee largely reflect that of the community they serve. This is mostly due to their voucher program which increased minority enrollment in private schools.

It isn’t 100% necessary for school districts to reflect the demographics of their community. However, there are usually tangible reasons when they don’t and it is up to the policymakers to find those reasons and adjust accordingly as the demographic disparity may cause obstacles for those left behind.

View the counties with the largest demographic discrepancies below:


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